IF THERE’S ONE PLACE THAT DESERVES TO BE PINNED TO THE TOP OF YOUR AFRICAN BUCKET LIST, IT’S BOTSWANA’S BREATHTAKING, ELEPHANT-RICH OKAVANGO DELTA.
Growing up, my parents would occasionally bundle us in the back of our trusty old 4×4 Syncro kombi and take us on safaris to places no kombi should be able to go, one of which was the Okavango region in our beautiful northern neighbour Botswana. I was quite young at the time, so that particular cluster of memories has faded somewhat, and yet it still sticks in the mind as one of the most awe-inspiring trips we ever did. Which is why, when Sun Destinations and Nicky Arthur PR recently invited me on a press trip to this wondrous place, I jumped at the chance. The itinerary stipulated two nights at Tuskers Wilderness Camp in the decommissioned NG43 hunting concession, and two nights at Xobega Island Camp in the heart of the Delta in Moremi Game Reserve.
Searing heat and the shrill song of cicadas greeted us as we made our way from Maun Airport to Tuskers in the back of a big safari truck. We were a gaggle of seven journalists who hardly knew one another, but the long, sweaty hours spent over the following few days in the back of that game truck would soon change all that.
We were warmly received at Tuskers by a singing, smiling complement of staff waving us welcome in the friendly two-handed style so typical of Africa. The camp consists of six Meru-style safari tents, a dining tent, a lounge and the all-important bar tent – in which we promptly proceeded to indulge in an ice-cold G&T.
Wildside Africa opened Tuskers, together with Xobega Island Camp, as an affordable safari option in the Okavango for those of us who don’t get paid in dollars or euros. Self-driving and self-camping in Moremi Game Reserve is still the most cost-effective way to experience this natural World Heritage Site, but for a bit of luxury, excellent meals, game drives, boat safaris and knowledgeable guides all packed into one convenient package, Tuskers and Xobega are the way to go.
You’ll also have a rather diverse experience. The respective scenery surrounding the two camps is so utterly different from each other; the stark topographical contrast between the arid mopane-dominated scapes of NG43, and the lush wildlife-abundant wetland of the alluvial fan that is the Delta proper will make you think you’ve travelled between two planets.
Amazingly, Tuskers is the only camp in the entire NG43 concession – a whopping 365 000 ha wilderness expanse (larger than Luxembourg) adjacent to Moremi Game Reserve. Botswana banned sport hunting in 2014, and the concession has certainly reaped the benefits, as it is now virtually crawling with game, with elephant numbers particularly healthy.
Feeling refreshed after our G&T, we went on our first game drive led by the exceptional guide and veritable fountain of all bush knowledge Pilot Manga. We’d hardly left camp before happening upon a young bull elephant contentedly cooling off in a small pool of water. We were mere metres away, but he didn’t pay us much attention and allowed us a few snaps of his bath-time pleasures. The bull didn’t have the watering hole to himself for long, though. To our left, crashing branches and a few excited trumpets betrayed a whole herd of thirsty ellies hurriedly descending on the small pond. Among them were a few babies of two or three weeks old, not fully in control of their tiny trunks just yet, but eager for a drink of water. They must have walked for hours trying to detect water in this parched landscape. We sat observing the joyful scene in amazed silence, only the splashes of water and rumbling of colossal bellies interrupting it.
We left the happy herd to themselves and Pilot piloted us to a good spot for sundowners in the middle of the vast wilderness, where we were treated not only to a beautiful sunset, but also the rising of the super moon and a sky with more stars than any city slicker is used to. That night, back in our tents, we listened to the thunderous, primal fear-evoking roars of lions no more than 50m from where we slept.
The rest of our time at Tuskers was spent lazing around camp (keeping a wary eye out for those lions, naturally), enjoying the view from the lounge tent that looks out over a watering hole that is periodically visited by elephants and giraffes, gorging ourselves on hearty meals and going on more game drives.
On one such drive, Pilot took us on a haunting visit to an elephant graveyard. When NG43 was still a hunting concession, they used to dump their tuskless quarry here. The contingent of hardened journalists fell silent as we stepped around the cemetery of bleached bones, the air thick with melancholy and a sense of great loss. On the edges of the dumping site, fresh pad prints were visible in the dust – signs that the living still come to pay respects to their fallen kin. Fortunately, as Pilot pointed out – trying to cheer up the crestfallen crew – this scale of massacre will never again happen here, and NG43’s population of elephants is once again flourishing.
That evening, we had a delectable dinner under a massive lone baobab. From the elephant graveyard, we had driven a few kilometres through the desolate and leafless mopane belt, until our surroundings suddenly changed to a sea of green. Perhaps owing to an underground spring, there exists this verdant oasis in the otherwise arid semi-desert. In the centre of it, the lone baobab proved the perfect spot for a starlit dinner – a long table already laden, and Tuskers staff waiting to serve a warm meal.
By then, the seven of us had grown comfortable with one another, a fact proved by the jovial sounds of glasses clinking and laughter ringing far into the night. We were so utterly alone and isolated in this wild vastness, and we loved each and every second.
The following morning, we left for Xobega Island Camp before the sparrows had time to stir. We crossed over into Moremi, and the drive, though long and monotonous, served up some wildlife and birds of every description. Two of the journos on board – both keen birders – were in something of a competition to see who could point out the more obscure species. Pilot, of course, regularly put both to shame. A bird of prey – be it a harrier hawk, yellow-billed kite, snake eagle or some sort of buzzard – would be a mere speck in the sky to the rest of us, but by the manner in which it glides or a certain way one wing dips, Pilot would identify it within seconds and without the help of a lens.
As we entered the floodplains of the Delta proper, we were immediately treated to a spectacle of hippo, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, lechwe and a diversity of other antelope – all in one frame. Kingfishers flitted above the water and continually dived for prey, while the distinctive call of the fish eagle welcomed us to its turf. Slack-jawed, I hardly believed this exclusive show of natural splendour we were made privy to. My face must have resembled those of the characters in Jurassic Park upon seeing the dinosaur-inhabited island for the first time. And I suddenly realised why that childhood trip in the kombi still features so prominently in the memory banks – it’s owed to this stunning postcard-like sight that one is so unlikely to see anywhere else.
We left the incredible scene behind and after driving through a further section of Moremi, we finally reached the boat station and were appreciative of a glass of wine after trundling along for nearly eight hours.
With everyone aboard and happy to be near the coolness of the water, we glided through the confusing network of channels towards Xobega, which is north of popular Chief’s Island. Papyrus reeds, sausage trees, lily pads and grass line the banks of the snaking waterways, from which crocodiles sneakily slid into the water at hearing the boat’s engines approach. It is astonishing to think that this watery paradise, which is flooded with 11 billion litres every year, has no outlets to the ocean, and just filters into the sands of the Kalahari. Mainly fed by the waters of the Angola highland, the alluvial fan of the Okavango is crucial to an immense diversity of life, including 160 species of mammal, 530 birds, 89 fish, 155 reptiles and 1 300 plants. Hardly surprising, then, that it’s one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders. It is arguably the best place in Africa to see wildlife, hence the exorbitant prices charged.
From the banks of remote and unspoilt Xobega Island we were again welcomed by the signature two-handed waves and a chorus of graceful singing voices. Lodgings on the island are simple and comfortable. There are 10 Meru-style tents with en-suite open-air bathrooms, a dining tent, two comfortable and stylishly appointed lounge areas and a boma area – all shaded by the large, leafy trees that cover the island.
Here, the days are even more idle and indolent. When we weren’t eating expertly prepared food, reading, chatting over a glass of wine or staring at the crackling ‘bush television’ in the evenings, we were on the river. Boat safaris in this section of the Delta serve up sightings of elephant coming to drink, hippo peering suspiciously over their submarine-like snouts, crocs cruising around menacingly and birds you are simply not likely to see in such numbers anywhere else. Marabous sit atop their nests and survey the Delta like clumsy traffic wardens, while herons and egrets of all sorts go about getting their fill of fish.
As the sun sank behind the Kalahari horizon on our last day, the Delta put on a show of some extravagance to see us off as we glided over its mirror-like waters. Painted in dramatic hues of deep pink, red and orange, framed by blue-grey clouds with fiery linings, the scene was made doubly arresting by the radiant horizon reflected in the water’s surface.
Everyone has their own version of paradise; I believe I’ve found mine.
Airlink flies direct to Maun from Joburg (daily) and Cape Town (five days
a week). flyairlink.com
Self drivers should enter Botswana at the Stockpoort border and continue onwards through the Makgadikgadi Pans. Wildside Africa can either organise transfers from Maun, or you can continue on to Moremi Game Reserve via the South Gate. You’ll just need to inform the camps of your expected arrival time. (Pack your GPS!)
It can get hot in Botswana. It was about 45 ̊C during our stay. I’d recommend going during the winter months.
South Africans don’t need visas, only passports.
The currency is the pula, but the rand is accepted closer to the border. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Where to stay
For the budget-concious, self-camping in Moremi is the way to go. Campers are advised to book campsites well in advance (up to eight months), and campsite- and park fees are usually payable at the gate (around R300 pp).
MODERATE (for the Okavango)
For those not keen on pitching their own, Wildside Africa runs two camps: Tuskers Bush Camp (R4 400 pp sharing including game drives and meals. wildsideafrica.net) and Xobega Island Camp (R4 400 pp sharing including meals, boat rides, transfers, park fees. xobega.com).
Botswana’s ‘low-volume, high-income’ tourism policy makes it quite difficult for locals to visit the area and it is now almost exclusively for high net-worth individuals or foreigners. For some perspective, other camps in the area will charge upwards of R30 000 per person sharing per night. Wildside’s offering is therefore a very welcome reasonable addition.